Trigger warning: references to sexual abuse in childhood.
In common with others who were sexually abused in childhood, I have been haunted by the awareness that millions of children round the world are potentially being locked in with sexual predators, as a consequence of measures necessary to limit the spread of COVID 19. I am also deeply concerned for the psychological health of adults living with their memories of having been subjected to this crime, without the normal range of social interactions and support, which would usually help them to cope and hold the past at bay.
While art and activism can be awkward bedfellows, the current crisis has made me think how I can use the body of work I am making around my own history of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, to bring awareness of this crime to a wider audience. My intention is part of an ongoing project aimed at finding ways to counter the devastating impacts when children are sexually abused. I also want to make the subject more comprehensible to those whose lives it has not touched directly, in order that we may work collectively for change.
One of the first challenges I faced in writing about sexual abuse was how to find a form of language which respects the inarticulacy of the child’s experience. This arises from the dissociative pressures of shock and shame, in combination with the intimidation and concealment perpetrated by the adult abuser. In her brilliant study, Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong cites the poet Myung Mi Kim telling her that “attention to silence is in itself an interrogation” [p139]. This chimes both with my own practice, and that of my late father-in-law, the sculptor Oscar Nemon, whose work has been part of my life since I was sixteen.
Together with millions of Europeans of Jewish heritage, Nemon and his sister Bella lost almost their entire family to the Holocaust. In their case, the twenty-three murdered relatives included their mother, brother and grandmother. Like many who suffer loss on this scale, aside from one interview at the end of his life, Nemon does not seem to have been able to speak out loud about this tragedy, not even to his children, nor to his close friends.
Better known for his portraits from life of Sigmund Freud and Winston Churchill, Nemon did however respond to the Shoah in his art, which also addresses wider questions of the impacts of genocide on surviving communities. Titled Humanity, his memorial to those killed was unveiled in 1965 in his home town of Osijek, now in Croatia (see below). Emerging from on sketches stretching back to the second world war, the composition shows a mother lifting her child to the future in defiance of annihilation.
While there is no direct allusion to genocide, it is a composition of the utmost vulnerability. Reaching out and up, neither mother nor child have any form of protection, silently reminding us of the undefendedness of the millions of civilians whose lives were taken both in the concentration camps, and en route for them. The model for the baby was Nemon’s son Falcon, born in 1941 as Yugoslavia was invaded, signalling the likely end of Nemon’s family of origin. Falcon later became my husband.
Nemon only completed two Shoah sculptures, but from 1945 onwards he made sketches exploring living in the aftermath of this loss. They often feature groups of mourning figures, standing together in solidarity, or holding one another. I first discovered them within his papers after Falcon died in 2002. Nemon had previously died in 1985. Recently bereaved, they moved me deeply. When I look through these drawings now, I am additionally struck by their relationships to silences, and silencings, and how they build bodies of gestural language from not speaking. Below is the rapidly drawn Don’t Forget, whose title and injunction come from the page of the memo pad on which it was executed in black felt tip pen.
Turned away from the viewer, the two figures hold each other, and possibly a child each, in a wordless enactment of grief. They make their loss palpable, but decline to let us into their closed circle, which is a place we can imagine, but not know. By existing, Don’t Forget gives witness, and forms a concrete place of testimony to a crime whose perpetrators attempted to deny it, and to destroy all evidence of what was done. This witnessing is an ambition I also have for the body of work I am making, as I hope to show in the discussion which follows of five poems published since the start of the pandemic in the Cambridge Literary Review and One Hand Clapping.
As a reviewer, and former features journalist, my intention is to use the additional resource of my prose to open up the context of these poems during these uniquely difficult times, to support children and adults with experiences of sexual abuse, whether current or historic. With funding for programmes to heal the aftermaths of this crime being cut, I also wanted to throw light on the nature of what happens when a child is sexually abused, to make it easier to understand why the damage, though often invisible, can be so profound.
‘twice told’ and ‘quadrant’, the first two poems I will discuss, were published in the full UK lockdown within the ‘script as identity’ issue of the Cambridge Literary Review. There is a clip of me reading them for the online launch available here. Looking back to the autumn of 1977, ‘twice told’ documents the immediate aftermath of the sexual abuse when I was just thirteen. At this point, the physical element had been stopped, but I had no means or opportunity of saying what had been done to me.
Set in a hospital room, the poem remembers the tone of the many conversations I had with Ann Dally, the psychiatrist who admitted me. I weighed 4 and a half stone, and had stopped eating in order to be able to die, but anorexia was still largely regarded as the disease of over-ambitious, perfectionist middle class girls. While Ann Dally rapidly became aware that my relationship with my abuser was not what it should be, it never occurred to her to ask about the possibility of sexual abuse.
‘twice told’ lies in a lozenge on the page, forming the shape of one the many sedating pills I was given. It alternates the psychiatrist’s questions with the child patient’s thoughts about a chaffinch she sees, who is neither able to sing nor fly. Working through the image of a flightless bird, with a grotesquely swollen beak, the poem catches both the impossibility of speaking, and the resulting weight of not being able to do to so.
‘quadrant’, moves beyond this to register the silences surrounding sexual abuse being being enforced, endured, and finally negotiated. It suggests that we may not have to remain in a place of injury forever. The word quadrant initially meant a quarter of a day, or six hours. This led to the name being given to an instrument, shaped like a quarter circle, used to measure altitudes in astronomy and navigation.
The poem is built from four quadrants. The first imagines a little girl’s words as “soft pink kissing” spread onto “iced cakes” and then fed back into her own mouth. The “steel hooves” of ‘intimidation’ follow, and lead to the exile of ‘exclusion’ when “lies puff out on/ washing lines” and “because/ she will not wear them/ the young woman must/ walk out naked.” This image to calls to mind the unprotected state of the adolescent who has suffered sexual abuse, and her vulnerability in the aftermath of the crime when she is trying to reclaim herself.
‘quadrant’ ends in a place of ‘redemption’, however. Finally, “open sky and water/ wind-blink a clear pool of June silver – washing/ her skin with spangled/ rings of joy.” Swimming, and particularly swimming in open air municipal pools in summer, has always been one of the most restorative areas of my life. I honour the transformative gift water represents for so many of us with histories of trauma, and the ways it may enable us to reclaim our bodies.
The three poems published in One Hand Clapping engage with different aspects of living with and in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood. ‘embedded’ is already available on this blog in the poems section. It was a poem that came alive for me again during the first phase of the full UK lockdown. The isolation I was experiencing through living alone, combined with the lack of social contact that many of us rely upon to manage our mental health, caused me to re-somatise the injury the poem responds to.
At the time of the poem, I was a pupil in a small village primary in Wiltshire. I worked among other children on shared tables, with papier maché animal masks looking down on us from the walls. Writing ‘embedded’, the soreness of those childhood mornings seemed to materialise within the roughness of the sacking tacked to the underside of my bed, the splinteriness of the wood, the sharpness of the rusty nails – in the same way that water vapour may be precipitated onto a cold surface. The word ‘backdoor’ is embedded centrally in the poem as an act of witness.
One Hand Clapping is also publishing two new poems of mine. They respond to how traumatic memories persist, but also how they may be represented and to some extent transformed. I first experienced penetrative abuse aged eight and a half, in December 1972. Ever since, that month has been difficult for me. Whenever I can afford to, I travel. It helps to be in a different light to that in England, and to open myself to new experiences, rather than being pulled backwards by the ghosts which return each year to claim me.
‘performance’ came out of a late December trip to Sicily in 2017. I wanted to see the island’s landscapes, and understand more of its multi-stranded history. A few days short of the end of the year, I was standing in the ruins of an almost vanished Roman amphitheatre at Eraclea within sight of the sea. Two thousand years ago there would have been crowds, and blood, and gladiators, and wild animals. Now broken rows of stones emerged from the dry grasses to mark where the benches would have stood. More or less the whole town had been carried away over the centuries to build houses nearby – as is the case with many classical ruins.
My own vanished, but present, past was within my thoughts as I walked around, trying to figure out the layout of the site from the notices and my guidebook, and imagine how everything had been. In their liminality, and near erasure, the ghosted forms of the seating and stage suggested the presences of memory, but also the way time erodes and changes. I was struck by how, although it was impossible, without additional information, to read the site fully, you could not ignore that something had once stood there.
A salt breeze was blowing in off the sea, like it had on the clifftop by my French grandmother’s house in Normandy. This was always my place of safety as a child, where I was usually more protected from my abuser. Feeling it on my face, the phrase “amphitheatres are carved from bones and stagger into stone” slipped into my consciousness. Then I heard “have traps in their floors troughs to drain blood.”
Those two phrases, arriving on the wind, turned my eight year old body into the amphitheatre, and stage for my own attack. Like a looping echo, as I thought about the gladiators forced to fight each other, and the animals they killed for public amusement, I also held somewhere in my mind my own powerlessness to resist my abuser, and the sense of unwitting complicity that the sexually abused child experiences. But, in the historical fact of the “troughs to drain blood”, the imagery also offered the possibility of some form of easing or relief, through draining away. As the poem took shape, I understood it could give a measure of moving beyond the eternal recurrence of what was done to me night after night in the dark, because refusing the silence that my abuser had required and enforced through my childhood and well into adult life, as is the case for many of us with this history.
amphitheatres carved from
bone stagger into stone
traps in floors
troughs to drain blood
bars protect the watchers
from the creature
as rain drunk
by growing grass
‘performance’ stayed short – only six more lines came. Sexual abuse is not something that can be fully communicated. Reticence is moreover a retrospective form of redress – clothing the child in a measure of dignity that was denied to her while the abuse was ongoing, and gifting the reader the option to engage only insofar as is safe and comfortable for them. As I worked on the poem, I understood that it needed to be tiny, and tight, and partly folded in on itself like a child’s body – but with a mysterious, felt possibility of growth and healing. The blood at the end is also just rain, in the same way that when we speak the difficult things that happen to us, they may be in some measure transfigured by the act of documenting.
The title was the last element to arrive. For a long time I called the poem ‘evidence’. Then I realised that it was more than that, because not static, but moving. ‘performance’ holds for me how, when we make works of art, whatever their starting point or destination, we construct them in such a way that they enact themselves within the viewer’s or reader’s mind, and then fold away again at the end, like the curtain going down on a stage. In that retelling, and closing down, we also exert our agency as the co-creators of our own life experiences, and give a degree of creative agency to our audience. Together – as artists and audiences, as past and present selves – we may discover the power to see and relate in new ways, as we move forwards through time, and gain different understandings of our own histories, and those of others.
‘papyri’, the final poem appearing in One Hand Clapping, responds to the difficulties inherent to making aesthetic performances from charged materials, and more generally to opening up traumatic memories to allow their energies to be present within a creative work. The starting point was my own reading about the ancient city of Herculaneum, which, like nearby Pompeii, was overwhelmed when Vesuvius erupted. Rather than ash, however, Herculaneum was covered with a hardened shroud of volcanic stone, up to 40 metres thick in places. This has not yet been fully excavated, and may never be, as the modern town of Ercolano stands above much of the ancient city.
Digging down along narrow, vertical shafts, the early excavators discovered among other finds the complex of a magnificent villa, complete with extraordinary mosaics and statues. There was also an area containing blackened, contorted log-like objects. These were originally disregarded as rubbish, or burnt to keep warm – until it was realised that they were in fact tightly rolled papyrus scrolls from the villa’s library. They had been carbonised and crushed during the eruption, and are the only surviving examples of this kind.
Even when the papyri were recognised for what they were, they remained almost impossible to unroll or decipher. The writing is black on black, and the carbonised sheets crumble entirely to dust unless treated with the utmost care. Many techniques were tried for deciphering them, including fixing to a silk background and unrolling by fractional amounts each day. The breakthrough only came in recent years, however, when medical diagnostic technology was brought into play. It was realised the papyri could be read through a combination of using a CT scanner to unroll them virtually, and an infrared scanner to distinguish the letters from the paper.
A CT scanner is of course more usually used to see inside the human body without surgical intervention. For those of us whose bodies have been attacked or invaded, the ability to see within their closed surfaces, to discover the evidence of what took place, is at once an impossible dream, and a potential nightmare. My poem ‘conjugation’, also on this blog, explores this idea, in the context of an MRI scan which I was given in 2014 to assess internal damage following cancer surgery.
While ‘conjugation’ speaks directly to my abuser, ‘papyri’ asks the reader to become a form of CT scanner, calling upon the magical powers of an empathetic imagination in bringing the processes of art into play. Because the sexual abuse of a child very often entails a measure of societal or familial complicity, I wanted to build the poem from phrases already in the public domain to enact a wider engagement. For this reason, the poem uses only ‘found language’ taken from an academic article published by the University of Kentucky about using CT scanners to read two unopened Herculaneum scrolls.
The borrowed and rearranged phrases request the scanner/reader to “distinguish bodily tissue/ detail a human’s organs/ reveal internal surfaces.” The poem accepts, sorrowfully, but also respectfully, “the task immensely difficult/ the scrolls so tightly/ wound and creased”. It allows the resistance to opening and disambiguating of such materials. But it also suggests that when you are able to “unwrap sections/ flatten them” they may gift you the ability to “see clearly” the constituent elements of “papyrus/ fibres/ sand” contained within the seemingly incomprehensible scrolls.
In the context of ‘papyri’, the final word, “sand”, is the saddest, and the most hopeful. It embodies the grit, and abrasion, caught between the soft surfaces of the historic Herculaneum papyri before carbonisation. Through this it looks back to the soreness of ‘embedded’. But it also honours the persistence of selfhood even under the most extreme adversity and fragmentation. Sand is made from minute particles of rock – most commonly granite, quartz or mica, or marine life forms – which still retain their original identities. In the same way, children subjected to sexual abuse retain their original selves, however dissipated and broken up by the trauma to which they have been subjected, as ‘two unopened scrolls’ asks the reader/scanner to recognise:
My late father-in-law, Oscar Nemon, also has a sketch which works with and transforms ‘found’ materials. It is a tender, grieving group, composed of three visible figures. More are implied behind them, completing the circle. With their backs to the viewer, refusing to speak directly out of the frame of the page, the figures cluster together and hold each other close. Their bodies, which form a trunk-like column, are made up of vertical, striped lines, like the striped clothes that the prisoners in the Lagers were required to wear, and which the world saw on newsreels of the liberation of the camps. The base on which they stand is a crosshatch of vertical and horizontal lines – echoing the barbed wire which contained the prisoners, and prevented their escape, also visible in contemporary news reportage.
But extraordinarily, and almost unbelievably, while the figures’ heads bow in sorrow, as grapes on a vine, awaiting harvest, their holding arms form two victory ‘V’s. This was another archetypal image of the second world war, implying resilience, and determination to resist. An additional V has been added below them, in a different pen, at a later date. The resulting shape, made by the interlocking Vs, calls to mind both a diamond – an emblem of light – and an open mouth at the heart of the composition. Made from the raw horror of war, the untitled sketch forms an act of articulation. Loss is made manifest through unflinching, empathetic, witness – without surrendering its final unspeakability. I hope my own poems will be able to work in this way for the global community of those of us living with, and making our lives and arts in the aftermath of, sexual abuse in childhood.
One Hand Clapping can be found here.
2 thoughts on “Marking the Spaces of our Silences : alice hiller on art as activism in the aftermaths of trauma.”